Ireland’s Wars: British Counter-Moves In 1920

Having spent a good long while on the IRA’s actions in 1920, it is now time that we swing back to the British, who, from a general perspective, were not being entirely passive in the early months of that year. January had brought a more aggressive stance from Dublin Castle, and by the summer they would introduce the latest branch of their armed forces. But the question remained as to whether such things would lead to tangible results in the war against militant republicanism: the answer remained to be seen.

The first thing was a massive increase in the amount of raids taking place, against the homes of those associated with various facets of the republican movement, whether it was the IRA, the Dail or any other number of less outwardly militant organisations. The RIC, the military and the Black and Tans were given much wider mandates in their localities, to forcibly enter homes and businesses, search them for anything incriminating, and to arrest whomever they pleased, sometimes on very flimsy evidence. Undoubtedly the British caught a large number of people in such raids that were a genuine danger to their position, just as they undoubtedly also arrested many whom they would have been better off not arresting. Much of the popular remembrance of the conflict, the “Tan War”, stems from such actions, especially in the countryside: of heavily armed and frightening men bursting into a home in the dead of night, to ransack, intimidate and sometimes carry off a resident or two, when outright murder was not committed.

A thousand such raids are recorded in January 1920, that sky-rocketed to 4’000 in February: some in Dublin Castle would point to such statistics as evidence that they were fighting back against the IRA and the Dail, but this was an insurgency war, and the British were making as many, or more, enemies than they were arresting. Many of the raids were aimless to the point of uselessness, based on faulty intelligence gathered by the hamstrung RIC, much of it outdated. There was no clear picture of what the structure of the IRA looked like in the localities, to the extent that, as we have seen, a high-ranking officer could be arrested, then released, without his captors ever being truly aware of how important he was. The increasing militarisation of the work – whether it was actual regular troops being employed, or the paramilitary in the form of the Black and Tans – was also a legitimisation of the IRA in itself, as it proved that they were opponents who required employment of such assets. In the end, as a strategy for conducting a war, it was a directionless thing of questionable purpose.

It is also questionable as to how much of an actual short-term impact the raids had. For sure, many key figures in IRA companies, battalions and brigades were arrested, some to be interned indefinitely, others to be forcibly deported. This did impact IRA activities to some degree, and there is a noted reduction in the number of attacks and other operations carried out in March of 1920. But it was a fleeting respite, if it could even be called that: prisoners were released, deportees sometimes found a way to return and officers could be replaced. Especially when British policy was the best kind of recruitment campaign for the IRA.

For the IRA, such things became manageable, and, as we have seen, did not ultimately do much to deter the increasing amounts of ambushes and barracks attacks. The apogee of this strategy was a spectacular cross-country operation undertaken over Easter weekend, when hundreds of RIC barracks that had been abandoned over the previous months were burned down by IRA operatives. From a strategic perspective the turnings did little, as the British had already given the positions up (though of course it did prevent them from being re-taken), but from a propaganda and morale perspective, it was a truly incredible demonstration of just how far the IRA had come.

It was clear that an increase in raids and arrests wasn’t enough, and the British counter-response in the field was matched by changes at the top, with a new military commander, Nevil Macready, appointed in April 1920. A Boer and World War One veteran with past experience serving in Ireland at the time of the Curragh Mutiny, Macready loathed the Irish, and appears to have accepted the job only because of his close friend, John French: he had previously advised John Maxwell to act harshly after the Easter Rising. On the civil side, Hamar Greenwood was appointed to the Chief Secretary role – as it happened, the last to hold it – and went about trying to make it the pre-eminent political position in the country again, but his inexperience with such cabinet positions would render his role increasingly ineffectual.

Soon after, Hugh Tudor, a man who had entered the trenches in 1914 a Captain and left them in 1918 a Major General, was appointed to command the police; he in turn appointed an old friend, Ormonde Winter, to be the Head of Intelligence. Very quickly a divide appeared: while Macready, surprisingly, favoured a degree of restraint, being opposed to the militarisation of the police and to reprisal killings. He thought a political solution the only one that could possibly succeed in pacifying the country, but the dithering over the stillborn Home Rule legislation continued.

Tudor and Winter had less scruples, and were backed up by London. Lloyd George and his government continued to favour a double-barrelled approach to Ireland, with the implementation of Home Rule – on a partial basis anyway, with the north to be excluded – going hand-in-hand with a hawkish and ever-more militant response to the perceived “criminality” of the IRA. The Prime Minister, backed up by compatriots like Winston Churchill, then the Secretary of State for War, encouraged Macready to enact more punitive measures (though they still hesitated to institute martial law).

The end result was the formation of the “Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary”, or “ADRIC”, better known to history as the Auxiliaries or “Auxies”. Perhaps because of their more distinctive name, the Black and Tans are better remembered, to the point that the two units are often conflated: but the Auxiliaries were different. The Black and Tans were designed to be, nominally, another arm of the existent RIC. The Auxiliaries were specifically recruited and trained to fight a counter-insurgency war. Recruited from World War One veterans on short-term contracts, the “Auxies” eventually would come to number around 1’900 men, split into 15 companies distributed around the country, but most concentrated in areas of high IRA activity. While supposedly a part of the RIC, they operated independently.

The Auxiliaries were recruited quickly, given only the most rudimentary training in counter-insurgency, and then left to their own devices in Ireland, a situation that inevitably resulted in bad morale, copious amounts of ill-discipline and plenty of violence. Often frustrated by the reality of counter-insurgency warfare, members of the Auxiliaries were routinely found at the heart of unsanctioned and sanctioned reprisals against the communities they were seemingly supposed to be helping, aided in such things by Macready’s insistence on additional vehicles being made available: the Auxiliaries are often remembered in rural areas in the same breath as the military lorries and armoured cars they used to rapidly deploy during raids or reprisals. Lloyd George held additional men for the military back for the present time, but numerous battalions based in Britain were on stand by for deployment. The IRA had escalated things, and the British were prepared to keep the process going.

All the while, the IRA’s war continued. In the next entry, I want to take the opportunity to formally introduce one of the defining aspects of the IRA’s war effort. These units have become synonymous with the War of Independence, and it can be argued that their importance has been all too easily conflated. But they are still worthy of some consideration all the same: the flying columns would be responsible for some of the most eye-catching moments of the war.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: British Counter-Moves In 1920

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Flying Columns | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: 1920 In Belfast | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Conciliation And Coercion | Never Felt Better

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